Desmond's creator Trix Worrell on helping new talent
To celebrate Black History Month we talk to writer, director and producer Trix Worrell whose work has helped bridge understanding, and who has set up an initiative in Stevenage to help new writers be heard
Best known for creating the much-loved Channel 4 sitcom, Desmond's, Trix Worrell has never considered himself a comedy writer.
‘I don’t write comedy, I can’t retain a joke,’ he laughs. ‘However, if it is a character with comic flaws or comedy within them, I can put that person in a situation and make you laugh.’
Laughter was a key part of Trix's upbringing after arriving in England from St Lucia. ‘My parents were part of the first generation that came. There was this strata of St Lucia that settled in Peckham.
‘Part of your armour of being a migrant is that you either laugh or cry. Nine times out of 10 we laughed a lot because that’s the way we get through.’
East London was a distant cry from the beautiful mountains, rainforest and beaches of the Caribbean island. His youth was a time of the National Front but also of anti-racism marches where he met academics who broadened his view of Britain.
‘My landscape changed - I realised that there were all sorts of people of different colours who were amazing people and brave.'
He trained at the National Film and Television School, starting out as a theatre writer and director, but it was winning a debut writer competition with Channel 4 that ignited his career. Offered the opportunity to pitch a new sitcom to producer Humphrey Barclay, Trix was sitting on the top deck of the number 36 bus on the way to the meeting. 'I didn’t have an idea,’ he admits. As the bus passed the local Afro-Caribbean barber shop, The Fairdeal, he could see the barbers ‘chirpsing’ with the girls going past and ignoring their clients - it was a light-bulb moment.
When he pitched the idea, Barclay was initially unenthusiastic. ‘Let me guess,' he said. 'it’s called Short and Curlies? Do you know how many barber shop comedies I get per week?’ But Trix was undeterred: ‘It’s not about a barber shop, it’s about a community drop in - you can get food, talk nonsense and at some point you may get a haircut.’ The series was never about cutting hair. In fact, Desmond, the lead character, wasn’t very good at it. At its core was family life, community and values. His friend Porkpie was an amalgam of some of Trix’s uncles. ‘I wanted to portray a black family. I never wrote Desmond’s for black people, I wrote it for white people.'
Filmed in front of a live audience, it was a ground breaking hit. ‘We were playing to an audience of 550 people, black and white, and it went down a storm. We’d have to do takes sometimes three or four times and tell the audience: “Can you just keep it down a bit?”'
After 71 episodes, peaking at more than five million viewers, and a BAFTA nomination, Desmond’s ended in 1994 due to the ill health of Norman Beaton who played the lead. He retired to move back to Guyana, as his character Desmond was doing the same. Tragically, Norman collapsed at the airport and died a few hours later from a heart attack.
The show wasn’t forgotten. Danny Boyle featured it in the best-of-British TV segment in the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. And a spin-off series, Porkpie, aired from 1995 to 1996.
Trix’s many other successes include writing the screenplay For Queen and Country, a 1989 film starring Denzel Washington. ‘I was his voice coach and we became friends after. He is an extraordinary man.’
He found working in America easier, starting Wicked Films, and Trijbits & Worrell with Dutch producer Paul Trijbits. They went on to work with companies including Universal, Disney and New Line Cinema, producing and developing a number of films including 1997's Roseanna’s Grave starring Jean Reno. He has also worked with Harvey Keitel, Thandiwe Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Pam Greier, Viggo Mortensen and Ridley Scott.
‘In America making films is a business. They are up front and tell you precisely what they think of your script. There’s none of this procrastination and talking about old school ties. I found it refreshing really, in America it’s about the product.’
Has the Black Lives Matter movement helped in that regard? ‘There is a platform now that we can operate and doors are being opened because of it. I’m really encouraged by young people, they don’t see colour, they don’t see gender.’
A recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Medal from the Royal Television Society, and an Honorary member of the British Comedy Academy, Trix's latest project is Distant Voices Group, based in Stevenage. He set it up with business partner Celia Taylor and his brother Sean last year after he read a statistic that only three per cent of film graduates get a job in the industry. ‘We wanted to set up a more holistic media company to tell stories in a different way, it doesn’t always have to be three acts.' They created Graddies, a student film festival, produced a Christmas Comedy Club with Lost Voice Guy for ITV, recently held a writer’s room in Stevenage with Channel 4 and are planning community-led projects. ‘We bring our expertise to try and change the game,’ says Trix. The group is open to all races and ages. ‘It’s a platform for new writers, new voices really.’ In recognition of Distant Voices, he is a finalist in the 2022 Black British Business Awards, with the winners due to be announced this month. Trix's latest film script, Brown Skins in the Rain, is a 'Windrush generation comedy' that has been picked up by Steve McQueen's producer. Other projects in the pipeline include one with MasterChef judge Greg Wallace, and a drama set in the Caribbean. ‘It’s a drama-comedy because for me we need to laugh,’ he explains. ‘The future's bright, we have a lot to say.’